: ISAAC DOB BERKOWITZ
So that you should not suspect me of taking his part, I will write a
short preface to my story.
It is written: "A man never so much as moves his finger, but it has been
so decreed from above," and whatsoever a man does, he fulfils God's
will--even animals and birds (I beg to distinguish!) carry out God's
wishes: whenever a bird flies, it fulfils a precept, because God,
blessed is He, formed it to fly, and
an ox the same when it lows, and
even a dog when it barks--all praise God with their voices, and sing
hymns to Him, each after his manner.
And even the wicked who transgresses fulfils God's will in spite of
himself, because why? Do you suppose he takes pleasure in transgressing?
Isn't he certain to repent? Well, then? He is just carrying out the will
And the Evil Inclination himself! Why, every time he is sent to persuade
a Jew to sin, he weeps and sighs: Woe is me, that I should be sent on
such an errand!
After this little preface, I will tell you the story itself.
Formerly, before the thing happened, he was called Reb Avrohom, but
afterwards they ceased calling him by his name, and said simply the
Reb Avrohom was looked up to and respected by the whole town, a
God-fearing Jew, beloved and honored by all, and mothers wished they
might have children like him.
He sat the whole day in the house-of-study and learned. Not that he was
a great scholar, but he was a pious, scrupulously observant Jew, who
followed the straight and beaten road, a man without any pride. He used
to recite the prayers in Shool together with the strangers by the door,
and quite quietly, without any shouting or, one may say, any special
enthusiasm. His prayer that rose to Heaven, the barred gates opening
before it till it entered and was taken up into the Throne of Glory,
this prayer of his did not become a diamond there, dazzling the eye, but
a softly glistening pearl.
And how, you ask, did he come to be called the Sinner? On this wise: You
must know that everyone, even those who were hardest on him after the
affair, acknowledged that he was a great lover of Israel, and I will add
that his sin and, Heaven defend us, his coming to such a fall, all
proceeded from his being such a lover of Israel, such a patriot.
And it was just the simple Jew, the very common folk, that he loved.
He used to say: A Jew who is a driver, for instance, and busy all the
week with his horses and cart, and soaked in materialism for six days at
a stretch, so that he only just manages to get in his prayers--when he
comes home on Sabbath and sits down to table, and the bed is made, and
the candles burning, and his wife and children are round him, and they
sing hymns together, well, the driver dozing off over his prayer-book
and forgetting to say grace, I tell you, said Reb Avrohom, the Divine
Presence rests on his house and rejoices and says, "Happy am I that I
chose me out this people," for such a Jew keeps Sabbath, rests himself,
and his horse rests, keeps Sabbath likewise, stands in the stable, and
is also conscious that it is the holy Sabbath, and when the driver rises
from his sleep, he leads the animal out to pasture, waters it, and they
all go for a walk with it in the meadow.
And this walk of theirs is more acceptable to God, blessed is He, than
repeating "Bless the Lord, O my soul." It may be this was because he
himself was of humble origin; he had lived till he was thirteen with his
father, a farmer, in an out-of-the-way village, and ignorant even of his
letters. True, his father had taken a youth into the house to teach him
Hebrew, but Reb Avrohom as a boy was very wild, wouldn't mind his book,
and ran all day after the oxen and horses.
He used to lie out in the meadow, hidden in the long grasses, near him
the horses with their heads down pulling at the grass, and the view
stretched far, far away, into the endless distance, and above him spread
the wide sky, through which the clouds made their way, and the green,
juicy earth seemed to look up at it and say: "Look, sky, and see how
cheerfully I try to obey God's behest, to make the world green with
grass!" And the sky made answer: "See, earth, how I try to fulfil God's
command, by spreading myself far and wide!" and the few trees scattered
over the fields were like witnesses to their friendly agreement. And
little Avrohom lay and rejoiced in the goodness and all the work of God.
Suddenly, as though he had received a revelation from Heaven, he went
home, and asked the youth who was his teacher, "What blessing should
one recite on feeling happy at sight of the world?" The youth laughed,
and said: "You stupid boy! One says a blessing over bread and water, but
as to saying one over this world--who ever heard of such a thing?"
Avrohom wondered, "The world is beautiful, the sky so pretty, the earth
so sweet and soft, everything is so delightful to look at, and one says
no blessing over it all!"
At thirteen he had left the village and come to the town. There, in the
house-of-study, he saw the head of the Academy sitting at one end of the
table, and around it, the scholars, all reciting in fervent, appealing
tones that went to his heart.
The boy began to cry, whereupon the head of the Academy turned, and saw
a little boy with a torn hat, crying, and his hair coming out through
the holes, and his boots slung over his shoulder, like a peasant lad
fresh from the road. The scholars laughed, but the Rosh ha-Yeshiveh
asked him what he wanted.
"To learn," he answered in a low, pleading voice.
The Rosh ha-Yeshiveh had compassion on him, and took him as a pupil.
Avrohom applied himself earnestly to the Torah, and in a few days could
read Hebrew and follow the prayers without help.
And the way he prayed was a treat to watch. You should have seen him! He
just stood and talked, as one person talks to another, quietly and
affectionately, without any tricks of manner.
Once the Rosh ha-Yeshiveh saw him praying, and said before his whole
Academy, "I can learn better than he, but when it comes to praying, I
don't reach to his ankles." That is what he said.
So Reb Avrohom lived there till he was grown up, and had married the
daughter of a simple tailor. Indeed, he learnt tailoring himself, and
lived by his ten fingers. By day he sat and sewed with an open
prayer-book before him, and recited portions of the Psalms to himself.
After dark he went into the house-of-study, so quietly that no one
noticed him, and passed half the night over the Talmud.
Once some strangers came to the town, and spent the night in the
house-of-study behind the stove. Suddenly they heard a thin, sweet voice
that was like a tune in itself. They started up, and saw him at his
book. The small lamp hanging by a cord poured a dim light upon him where
he sat, while the walls remained in shadow. He studied with ardor, with
enthusiasm, only his enthusiasm was not for beholders, it was all
within; he swayed slowly to and fro, and his shadow swayed with him, and
he softly chanted the Gemoreh. By degrees his voice rose, his face
kindled, and his eyes began to glow, one could see that his very soul
was resolving itself into his chanting. The Divine Presence hovered over
him, and he drank in its sweetness. And in the middle of his reading, he
got up and walked about the room, repeating in a trembling whisper,
"Lord of the World! O Lord of the World!"
Then his voice grew as suddenly calm, and he stood still, as though he
had dozed off where he stood, for pure delight. The lamp grew dim, and
still he stood and stood and never moved.
Awe fell on the travellers behind the stove, and they cried out. He
started and approached them, and they had to close their eyes against
the brightness of his face, the light that shone out of his eyes! And he
stood there quite quietly and simply, and asked in a gentle voice why
they had called out. Were they cold?
And he took off his cloak and spread it over them.
Next morning the travellers told all this, and declared that no sooner
had the cloak touched them than they had fallen asleep, and they had
seen and heard nothing more that night. After this, when the whole town
had got wind of it, and they found out who it was that night in the
house-of-study, the people began to believe that he was a Tzaddik, and
they came to him with Petitions, as Chassidim to their Rebbes, asking
him to pray for their health and other wants. But when they brought him
such a petition, he would smile and say: "Believe me, a little boy who
says grace over a piece of bread which his mother has given him, he can
help you more than twenty such as I."
Of course, his words made no impression, except that they brought more
petitions than ever, upon which he said:
"You insist on a man of flesh and blood such as I being your advocate
with God, blessed is He. Hear a parable: To what shall we liken the
thing? To the light of the sun and the light of a small lamp. You can
rejoice in the sunlight as much as you please, and no one can take your
joy from you; the poorest and most humble may revive himself with it, so
long as his eyes can behold it, and even though a man should sit, which
God forbid, in a dungeon with closed windows, a reflection will make
its way in through the chinks, and he shall rejoice in the brightness.
But with the poor light of a lamp it is otherwise. A rich man buys a
quantity of lamps and illumines his house, while a poor man sits in
darkness. God, blessed be He, is the great light that shines for the
whole world, reviving and refreshing all His works. The whole world is
full of His mercy, and His compassion is over all His creatures. Believe
me, you have no need of an advocate with Him; God is your Father, and
you are His dear children. How should a child need an advocate with his
The ordinary folk heard and were silent, but our people, the Chassidim,
were displeased. And I'll tell you another thing, I was the first to
mention it to the Rebbe, long life to him, and he, as is well known,
commanded Reb Avrohom to his presence.
So we set to work to persuade Reb Avrohom and talked to him till he had
to go with us.
The journey lasted four days.
I remember one night, the moon was wandering in a blue ocean of sky that
spread ever so far, till it mingled with a cloud, and she looked at us,
pitifully and appealingly, as though to ask us if we knew which way she
ought to go, to the right or to the left, and presently the cloud came
upon her, and she began struggling to get out of it, and a minute or two
later she was free again and smiling at us.
Then a little breeze came, and stroked our faces, and we looked round to
the four sides of the world, and it seemed as if the whole world were
wrapped in a prayer-scarf woven of mercy, and we fell into a slight
melancholy, a quiet sadness, but so sweet and pleasant, it felt like on
Sabbath at twilight at the Third Meal.
Suddenly Reb Avrohom exclaimed: "Jews, have you said the blessings on
the appearance of the new moon?" We turned towards the moon, laid down
our bundles, washed our hands in a little stream that ran by the
roadside, and repeated the blessings for the new moon.
He stood looking into the sky, his lips scarcely moving, as was his
wont. "Sholom Alechem!" he said, turning to me, and his voice quivered
like a violin, and his eyes called to peace and unity. Then an awe of
Reb Avrohom came over me for the first time, and when we had finished
sanctifying the moon our melancholy left us, and we prepared to continue
But still he stood and gazed heavenward, sighing: "Lord of the Universe!
How beautiful is the world which Thou hast made by Thy goodness and
great mercy, and these are over all Thy creatures. They all love Thee,
and are glad in Thee, and Thou art glad in them, and the whole world is
full of Thy glory."
I glanced up at the moon, and it seemed that she was still looking at
me, and saying, "I'm lost; which way am I to go?"
We arrived Friday afternoon, and had time enough to go to the bath and
to greet the Rebbe.
He, long life to him, was seated in the reception-room beside a table,
his long lashes low over his eyes, leaning on his left hand, while he
greeted incomers with his right. We went up to him, one at a time, shook
hands, and said "Sholom Alechem," and he, long life to him, said
nothing to us. Reb Avrohom also went up to him, and held out his hand.
A change came over the Rebbe, he raised his eyelids with his fingers,
and looked at Reb Avrohom for some time in silence.
And Reb Avrohom looked at the Rebbe, and was silent too.
The Chassidim were offended by such impertinence.
That evening we assembled in the Rebbe's house-of-study, to usher in the
Sabbath. It was tightly packed with Jews, one pushing the other, or
seizing hold of his girdle, only beside the ark was there a free space
left, a semicircle, in the middle of which stood the Rebbe and prayed.
But Reb Avrohom stood by the door among the poor guests, and prayed
after his fashion.
"To Kiddush!" called the beadle.
The Rebbe's wife, daughters, and daughters-in-law now appeared, and
their jewelry, their precious stones, and their pearls, sparkled and
The Rebbe stood and repeated the prayer of Sanctification.
He was slightly bent, and his grey beard swept his breast. His eyes were
screened by his lashes, and he recited the Sanctification in a loud
voice, giving to every word a peculiar inflection, to every sign an
expression of its own.
"To table!" was called out next.
At the head of the table sat the Rebbe, sons and sons-in-law to the
left, relations to the right of him, then the principal aged Jews, then
The people stood round about.
The Rebbe ate, and began to serve out the leavings, to his sons and
sons-in-law first, and to the rest of those sitting at the table after.
Then there was silence, the Rebbe began to expound the Torah. The
portion of the week was Numbers, chapter eight, and the Rebbe began:
"When a man's soul is on a low level, enveloped, Heaven defend us, in
uncleanness, and the Divine spark within the soul wishes to rise to a
higher level, and cannot do so alone, but must needs be helped, it is a
Mitzveh to help her, to raise her, and this Mitzveh is specially
incumbent on the priest. This is the meaning of 'the seven lamps shall
give light over against the candlestick,' by which is meant the holy
Torah. The priest must bring the Jew's heart near to the Torah; in this
way he is able to raise it. And who is the priest? The righteous in his
generation, because since the Temple was destroyed, the saint must be a
priest, for thus is the command from above, that he shall be the
"Avrohom!" the Rebbe called suddenly, "Avrohom! Come here, I am calling
The other went up to him.
"Avrohom, did you understand? Did you make out the meaning of what I
"Your silence," the Rebbe went on, "is an acknowledgment. I must raise
you, even though it be against my will and against your will."
There was dead stillness in the room, people waiting to hear what would
"You are silent?" asked the Rebbe, now a little sternly.
"You want to be a raiser of souls? Have you, bless and preserve us,
bought the Almighty for yourself? Do you think that a Jew can approach
nearer to God, blessed is He, through you? That you are the 'handle
of the pestle' and the rest of the Jews nowhere? God's grace is
everywhere, whichever way we turn, every time we move a limb we feel
God! Everyone must seek Him in his own heart, because there it is that
He has caused the Divine Presence to rest. Everywhere and always can the
Jew draw near to God...."
Thus answered Reb Avrohom, but our people, the Rebbe's followers, shut
his mouth before he had made an end, and had the Rebbe not held them
back, they would have torn him in pieces on the spot.
"Leave him alone!" he commanded the Chassidim.
And to Reb Avrohom he said:
"Avrohom, you have sinned!"
And from that day forward he was called the Sinner, and was shut out
from everywhere. The Chassidim kept their eye on him, and persecuted
him, and he was not even allowed to pray in the house-of-study.
And I'll tell you what I think: A wicked man, even when he acts
according to his wickedness, fulfils God's command. And who knows?
Perhaps they were both right!